An Evening of “Murder, Insanity, and Depression” With Jim White

Genres of music can be stilted, ignorant places to reside sometimes. When a style emerges, it normally isn’t long before it hits its apex and begins the downward slide into 4th-generational mediocrity (read: Puddle of Mudd, SUM 41, nearly every Cash Money artist). The saving grace tends to arrive in one of two ways in the form of a left-field outsider who either has the guts to take traditional conventions and turn them on their head or subvers those traditions by integrating various other forms and influences. Jim White falls squarely into the latter category.

It’s enough of a warning that White is signed to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. The label has been home to music as eclectic as Brazilian dance to the quirky pop of criminally overlooked one-hit wonders, Geggy Tah. Then there’s White’s background: a film graduate, an ex-professional surfer, a former fashion model. You begin to get the picture.

White’s last album, 2001’s No Such Place, mixed his brand of ethereal, spooky folk with the input of five different producers, the most notable of which were trip-hop purveyors, Morcheeba. The result was something White has referred half-jokingly to as ‘hick-hop,’ a vibrant, almost dancey brand of alternative country.

Live, White’s music takes on a different motif. While he has toured with a backing band before, his current guise finds him alone with a variety of technology. This stop on the aptly named “Alone with Machines” tour found him looping stray vocal yelps and lyrics, sleigh bells, vocorder and keyboards alongside a drum machine and his finger-pick guitar playing. The results were often soundscapes so disparate from their recorded counterparts that it was hard to know what song he was playing until the lyrics began. This was in no way a hindrance.

Rather, White’s true ingenuity shows through as these live versions, while certainly not replacing their album incarnations, took life on their own as a different view on similar material. Unfortunately a rather small audience of only about 40 ticketholders were there to witness. Those who were present seemed enthralled with the intimate performance.

Finally, White’s lyrics shone on top of it all. His stories are gothic evocations of the South’s restless downtrodden and lost. Between his deep-voiced spoken-word delivery and versatile singing it’s as easy to get lost in his wordplay as it is his music.

Even mired in the depths of murder, insanity and depression, however, occasionally a ray of light shines through. In “Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi,” White’s character relates the story of his strange predicament before deciding that he’s “feeling pretty good about the future/yeah, everything is peaches but the cream/..things is always better than they seem.”

Not a bad philosophy from an outsider. Not bad at all.

Josh Neas is the head music director at WQFS-FM.